Sunday 31 August 2014

The Complete Short Stories - J.G.Ballard (2001)

As a teenager in the 1980’s J.G. Ballard was a name that had been dropped by some musicians I admired, such as Ian Curtis and David Bowie. Dutifully I went out and bought Ballard’s novel Crash (1973). I was ill prepared for Ballard’s psycho sexual narrative about a character with an unhealthy obsession with car crashes. I haven’t read it again since, but it has certainly stayed with me. Ballard is a unique writer who is not easily pigeonholed into a specific genre; some of his short stories can by recognized as science fiction, but the majority are distinctively his own voice. This is the definitive collection, with 96 stories across 1184 pages and like Crash, most of them are now nestled in my subconscious, destined to emerge and take flight like the sand-rays that populate Vermillion Sands.

The stories set in Vermillion Sands, a surreal coastal desert-scape dotted with settlements, are perhaps Ballard’s most impressive short stories. Ballard wrote the Vermillion Sands stories between 1956 and 1970. This collection opens with one of his first published stories, Prima Belladonna (1956), which is set in Vermillion Sands. The Vermillion Sands stories are populated by listless, often psychologically intense protagonists who encounter other characters that are eccentric, or are involved in surreal and intense situations. These stories contain some of Ballard’s best imagistic prose. Vermillion Sands itself is a desert dream-scape; an environment of the subconscious that compliments the intense psychology of many of the adventurers, drifters and artists staying there. The desert of Vermillion Sands features sonic sculptures, rocks that grow and emit sounds when influenced by people or the environment around them. They feature heavily in Venus Smiles (1957) and The Singing Statues (1962), but appear in most of the other Vermillion Sands stories. Perhaps my favourite of these stories is Cry Hope, Cry Fury (1966), which features typically psychologically fraught characters creating paintings that are made with photosensitive paint that interprets an image of the sitter over many days. As with all the Vermillion Sand stories, the blend of weird technology and intense psychology is spellbinding.

In Ballard’s brief one page introduction he states that “Short stories have always been important to me. I like their snapshot quality, their ability to focus intensely on a single subject.” He goes on to say that “...there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.” Such a statement is, of course, debatable, but a great percentage of these collected stories are either perfect, near perfect or at least satisfyingly thought provoking. It is fascinating to witness Ballard’s development across thirty six years of short story writing. There is an evolution of style and ideas across the decades, but perhaps what is most interesting is what they have in common. The complexity of the human psyche held a strong fascination for Ballard. Many of the stories have significant psychological themes, such as My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974), in which the protagonist, Melville, is obsessed with digging up wrecked WWII planes from coastal sand dunes and flying to Wake island in the Pacific, which is a near impossible journey. The story is a representation of a mental state, rather than having a plot with a traditional narrative arc, which is the case with many of these short stories. Minus One (1963) is particularly brilliant; set in Green Hill Asylum, the asylum’s director decides to deal with the seemingly impossible problem of an escaped inmate by concluding that he didn’t actually exist and that he was the result of a mass delusion by the asylum staff. The ultimate problem this creates results in a darkly humorous and disturbing ending.

The environment, both natural and built, and how it can influence humans psychologically features strongly in Ballard’s work. I’ve been reliably informed by a work colleague that the correct term for this is psycho-geography. The coastal desert-scape of the Vermillion Sands stories certainly fits that description. Ballard’s infamous experimental story, The Terminal Beach (1964) best represents this theme. A man called Traven lives on an island entirely given over to the machinery of war and nuclear testing; an island that is “...synthetic, a man made artifact...” The synthetic island that Traven lives on is a manifestation of the post war human psyche. It makes for disturbing reading and its effect on the reader is almost subliminal. The psycho-geography theme is taken even further in the 1976 story, The Ultimate City, which is set in a future where fossil fuels have run out and most people live in self sustaining rural settlements. Ballard’s protagonist, Halloway, ends up back in a deserted city much like New York and gets caught up in a quest to bring back a portion of the city to how it was before everything changed. It gradually becomes apparent that the transition in Halloway’s psyche is a direct result of the built environment, shifting the story from a post apocalyptic adventure into a dark satire on the subtle terrors of modern life.

Ultimately this collection is a tribute to the brilliant sensibility of J.G. Ballard, which has been appropriately labelled ‘Ballardian.’ Ballard’s almost genre-less stories are a world unto themselves and throb with a singular luminous intensity that is wholly satisfying. Ballard’s style is literary, experimental, erudite and at times darkly satirical. The scope of Ballard’s writing is overwhelming, however many of these stories can be found in smaller collections, which might be a good place to start for the Ballardian novice. The Vermillion Sands stories have been collected in an eponymously titled publication that was first released in 1971, but has been republished many times since. The Vermillion Sands stories are addictive and to paraphrase the late William Burroughs, they give you a literary high; read them and I can guarantee that you’ll be ready to move on to this collection.

Image: An analogue to Vermillion Sands and the singing sculptures? The Pinnacles, just north of Perth.

Monday 18 August 2014

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent (2013)

The axe and block used to behead Agnes Magnúsdóttir

I’ll get straight to the point: Hannah Kent has written the best debut novel I have ever read. Burial Rites is a superlative piece of historical fiction that was inspired by a year long stay as an exchange student in northern Iceland when Kent was just 17 in 2002. While she was out with her host family she asked about the significance of a valley they were driving through and they pointed out a cluster of three hills and told her about Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830. Nearly ten years later Kent chose the story of Agnes as the subject for the novel she would write for her PHD.

Burial Rites is an intensely emotional and psychological document of an obscure event in the history of Iceland that displays Kent’s ability to write complex and nuanced characters. Agnes, a morally ambiguous and complex character is central to Burial Rites, however all of the other characters are also brilliantly realised, giving the novel great depth. After her trial Agnes is removed from a makeshift prison and is taken to the home of the Jonsson family to wait out her last days. The Jonsson family are torn between duty to state bureaucracy, in the form of the pompous and stern Blondal, and their fear of the murderess in their midst. Charged as the savoir of her soul, the youthful priest Toti is at first tested by Agnes’ request that he help her through her last days, but is then dedicated to her beyond the call of his religious duty. The relationship between Toti and Agnes allows the story of Agnes’ life to be revealed at a natural pace, making it a brilliantly subtle narrative device to generate tension. The Jonsson daughters, Steina and Lauga, are divided in  their reactions to Agnes’ presence. Their mother, Margret, is initially distrustful, yet the presence of Agnes ends up bringing out the best in her. There is a particularly poignant scene in which the two women share a late night hot milk whilst Agnes tells of the events that led her to her fate. Agnes and Margaret are powerfully complex female characters that are so real and vital that you feel like you’ve shared many months with them in their badstofa, the Icelandic communal living and sleeping space used during that era.

The fact that Kent had lived in the area for a year and had then conducted six weeks of research to uncover the available records concerning the murders Agnes was involved in no doubt significantly helped her write such a quality novel. Letters and documents from the era feature throughout the novel, giving a harsh bureaucratic contrast to the tragic events and their aftermath. Such details give Burial Rites some historical credence, but it is the brilliance of Kent’s prose that really stands out. Kent’s prose style is beautifully poised and pared back; there’s nothing excessive and nor is there anything wasted. The bleak landscape of Iceland is unavoidable, yet not once does Kent overdo it with florid adjectives; nor does she waste the metaphorical power of the Icelandic environment. Her descriptive powers are such that the reader is right there with the characters, trudging through the alien landscape and huddling in the badstofa on freezing cold nights. Kent also generates compelling narrative tension by contrasting her third person omniscient narrative with sections in Agnes’ profoundly authentic first person voice.

Ultimately Burial Rites acts as an affirmation of the worth of historical fiction. Historians have been known to be suspicious of historical fiction, worried that authors distort facts and invent persons or situations that never occurred, giving readers a false impression of important historical events. Historians do have a valid point and I’m sure that some historical fiction does lead to inaccurate assumptions about the past; however a novel like Burial Rites brings alive the past, allowing readers to experience what it might have been like to be alive in an otherwise unknowable past. Kent has done us a great service, as it is unlikely that most people outside of Iceland would have ever known about Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Read Burial Rites and you will know exactly what it would be like to live through your last hours knowing that your head was going to be removed by an axe on top of a lonely Icelandic hill in the depths of a nineteenth century winter. The last chapter of Burial Rites is one of the most chilling and emotionally intense endings to a novel I have ever read and it will stay with me for a long time to come.

Endnote: Recently I’ve been wondering whether I’ve been harsh in my assessments of some of the books I’ve read recently, having given amazing books my second highest rating of excellent. After reading Burial Rites I find that I was correct in my judgements. Burial Rites deserves the sublime rating. It is the best literary historical fiction novel I have ever read, and that includes Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall (2009).